We are enormously grateful to fr Timothy Radcliffe op, for permission to publish a translation of part of a talk he gave to the Institut de Pastorale des Dominicains in Montreal, Quebec on the 21st February last year.
One of the most significant thinkers in the Church today, fr Timothy was Master of the Order of Preachers from 1991 to 2001. He has been awarded twelve honorary doctorates (including a DD from Oxford) and the Michael Ramsay prize for theological writing for his seminal text What is the Point of Being a Christian?. He is a consulter to the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and a fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.
He begins by recalling a visit he made to war torn Syria in 2015, to a Carmelite monastery close to the ISIS frontlines.
ACH TIME that we celebrate the Lord’s supper we come face to face with death. Normally, this truth is hidden in my soul, but in Syria, as we were gathered in the chapel, this truth was unveiled again because there were people four kilometres away who would have taken great pleasure in beheading us… Perhaps this is why the suffering people of Homs truly live the Eucharist with a joy that we don’t always see in the West. The deep meaning of the Eucharist is therefore palpable: it is the covenant of eternal life. So going to mass isn’t a penitential or boring obligation, but the joy of those for whom death has lost its sting. Praying, song and music.
The Gospel of Mark tells us that the Lord’s Passover concluded with the singing of psalms, before he embarked on his Passion. After singing the psalms, He went to the Mount of Olives. This was probably the second part of the Hallel (Psalms 113 to 118) in which we praise the eternal God of love. Jesus confronts death with a song. There, not far from Da’esh [ISIS], we sang. The beauty of their psalms, sung in Arabic, haunts me still. It is thus that we Christian face suffering and death: with song and music. In Februrary 2015, when twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded on a beach in Libya, they died singing to Jesus.
When one of our [Dominican] brethren is dying, it is our tradition that the whole community gathers around his bed and we sing the Salve Regina. Of course, sometimes a brother might open an eye and ask if we’re not being a bit hasty! I hope that at the hour of my death, the last thing I will hear will be the song of my brothers, probably with wrong notes. There was a brother who taught a lot in Canada, Osmund Lewry. At the age of 54 he was dying of cancer… For Easter all of the community went to his cell to celebrate the Mass of the Resurrection. After communion we sang the Regina Caeli and I went downstairs to search for champagne to celebrate the Resurrection. I said to Osmund “wasn’t the Regina Caeli beautiful?” he replied “yes, I should have died during it.” I replied, “you have no sense of timing!” He said “I was waiting for the champagne”.
I had to leave Jerusalem swiftly to be with my father a few days before he died. I asked him if there was anything I could do for him. He asked me to bring him his Walkman so that he could listen to Mozart’s Requiem and the Seven Last Words by Haydn. Maybe this is a universal reaction and not just Christians who want to have music when facing death.
Tansy Davies’ opera Between Worlds (2015) recreates the destruction of the twin towers in New York on the 9th September 2001. Somepeople were shocked that someone could compose an opera about such a horrible event, but perhaps opera is the only way to confront that brutality. The librettist, Nick Drake, said
“Putting the transforming power of music at the heart of the drama, we thought, might allow us to weigh the tragedy of what happened on 9/11, and yet discover some kind of light in that darkness. Music even seems to have played a role in helping some people on that day. A security guard sang hymns to those descending the stairs, to give them courage. Some relatives, lost for words as they spoke to loved ones on the phone, sang together.”
One day in April 2015, nineteen people were killed by a car bomb in the west of Baghdad. Karim Wasfi, the director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Iraq went to the site of the first explosion with his cello and in the midst of the rubble, he played one of his own compositions titled Baghdad Mourning Melancholy. Afterwards he said “I wanted to show what beauty can be in the ugly face of car bombs, and to respect the souls of the fallen ones”. Since that moment, every time there is an attack in Bahgdad (which is getting rarer thank God), Karim Wasfi goes there and plays music.
I could talk further, for example of the starving people of Leningrad who played Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony when they were assailed by the enemy in World War II.
To sing and make music is part of the ordinary lives of Christians, but for me it’s only in a place of suffering and danger that its profound hope is unveiled.
I wish to pose a question: what are the songs of hope that we are offering to our children here today?